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Deadly fungus spreads in Everglades, killing trees

Everglades Plant Menace

MIAMI (AP) - A fungus carried by an invasive beetle from southeast Asia is felling trees across the Everglades, and experts have not found a way to stop the blight from spreading.

Then there's a bigger problem - the damage may be leaving Florida's fragile wetlands open to even more of an incursion from exotic plants threatening to choke the unique Everglades and undermine billions of dollars' worth of restoration projects.

Since first detected on the edge of Miami's western suburbs in 2011, laurel wilt has killed swamp bay trees scattered across 330,000 acres of the Everglades, a roughly 2 million-acre system that includes Everglades National Park. The fungus is spread by the tiny redbay ambrosia beetle, which likely arrived in this country in a shipment of wood packing material.

The same fungus also plagues commercial avocado trees and redbay trees elsewhere in Florida and the Southeast. While the state has been working with the avocado industry to mitigate the damage, there's been no way to contain it in swamp bay or redbay trees. Experts say the best defense would be stopping invasive pests from crossing U.S. borders in the first place.

Hundreds of millions of redbay trees have succumbed across six states since 2002, said Jason Smith, an expert in forest pathology at the University of Florida.

"It's amazing how much of an impact this one little tiny beetle that's no bigger than Lincoln's nose on a penny has done," Smith said in a recent interview. "And it continues to spread."

This summer, Smith will survey the national park for living swamp bay trees to collect samples in the hopes of propagating new trees resistant to the pathogen from their cuttings or seeds. The South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that oversees Everglades restoration, also plans to ramp up its monitoring and maintenance of the tree islands where swamp bays are found.

The damage is easily spotted from the air and from the highway that cuts across the Everglades. Gray skeletons of swamp bays that died in the pathogen's first wave and newly dead trees that have turned dry and brown mar the dark green tree islands that dot the vast expanse of pale sawgrass.

Each tree island is losing up to half its tree canopy, said LeRoy Rodgers, the water management district's lead invasive species biologist.

That's worrisome because invasive plants may work their way into those open spaces - like weeds in a garden, but worse.

Old world climbing fern, melaleuca, Australian pine and Brazilian pepper are the invaders that particularly worry state and federal caretakers of the Everglades. Like the invasive Burmese pythons that are blamed for dramatic drops in the populations of native mammals in the wetlands, the plants have established a home in South Florida's sunny and wet climate.

The exotic plants can transform sawgrass prairies into impenetrable thickets, and they fuel explosive fires that kill native plants adapted for less intense burns. They're not a food source for native wildlife, and in coastal areas, their roots can disrupt the nests of endangered sea turtles. They're so tenacious and difficult to remove that even if Smith finds a way to propagate swamp bays to replace the ones lost, the invasive plants could prevent them from taking root.

"We already have these problems with invasives that are almost too daunting. When you add laurel wilt to the mix, it's only going to get worse," said Tylan Dean, chief of biology at Everglades National Park.

Nonnative plants currently comprise 16 percent of the flora in the Everglades, according to a congressionally mandated restoration progress report published last month by the National Research Council.

Billions of dollars have been pledged for Everglades restoration projects that span decades, but those funds are mostly focused on restoring a more natural flow of freshwater through the wetlands south to the Florida Keys.

In spite of the disturbances they cause, invasive species haven't been factored into Everglades restoration planning beyond treating invasive plants that spread during construction, and there's little funding or manpower available to fight them back, according to the report.

"In Everglades restoration, we have a mantra: we want to get the water right," Rodgers said. "But if we cannot deal with the invasive species, we can get the water right but not get the Everglades we thought we were getting."

Join the discussion

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raptureus210 July 25 2014 at 7:40 AM

Well, the Bible speaks of in the Last Days there will be diseases and incects spreading in the world that will destroy life that no cure will be able to control. God used this type of event in order to get Egypt's attention when the King's heart was hardened. We seem to has a President with that type of hardened heart when it comes to the American people. God's wrath came upon Egypt as a result. Could it be the same will or is happening to this nation? Open your eyes folks and read God's Word. History repeats itself it a nation refuses to repent because God's Laws don't change!

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12 replies
Erbie's July 25 2014 at 9:53 AM

Hell with it, get ddt back, get rid of the critters. How many people didn't get sick from ddt and how many did from insects bites?

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3 replies
GIDAD1 July 25 2014 at 9:15 AM

Will the environmentalists aprove of killing the bad bugs?

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5 replies
bigfile4 July 25 2014 at 7:31 AM

The Chinese have always covert in their aggression. I don't think all the ways we have been 'invaded' by diseases and computer hacking from China are any accidents but their strategy in this modern day version of the Cold War. Not hard to believe in a conspiracy theory when it comes to them.

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rothhammer1 July 25 2014 at 8:06 AM

The real estate developers should love these beetles. That much less to burn off before paving over every last available square foot.

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1 reply
bookbuyer1 rothhammer1 July 25 2014 at 8:28 AM

Don't be concerned about these alien, foreign beetles. They are merely undocumented insects that won't really do any harm. Is there a way to let them vote?

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1 reply
john.dean54 bookbuyer1 July 25 2014 at 10:39 AM

Can you concentrate on one subject without your medication?

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Peter July 25 2014 at 8:01 AM

So we can't kill the beetles?....glad we have advanced so much...we can all talk a great game and say what the problem is, but when it comes to solving anything, we just stand back and report it on social media wondering what the ratings will be.

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3 replies
john.dean54 July 25 2014 at 10:38 AM

Another reason to buy Made in America

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dennismlns July 25 2014 at 8:58 AM

It is a direct result of either: SUVs, lack of gun controll, or global warmming.

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2 replies
flhx14 dennismlns July 25 2014 at 10:02 AM

You got it...lmao

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tbone5551212 dennismlns July 25 2014 at 11:05 AM

Dont forget George Bush!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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endmillll July 25 2014 at 9:31 AM

Thats probably due to the dead body'sthe mafia and the drug cartell's are throwing in there.

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conchydon July 25 2014 at 10:26 AM

Why are we buying Chinese plywood?????? We don't make it here anymore.......Why are people allowed to own pythons that will be let loose in the Everglades? Government allowed the importation of these things. Just one more example of Government hurting the country. Let America work again and stop allowing crap in our country that does not belong.....

Flag Reply +3 rate up
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